Travelling sustainably - is it viable for students?

Image Credit: Photo by JK on Unsplash

Travel Editor Lyndsey McKiernan examines the feasibility of travelling sustainably on a student budget.

The growing concern about the climate crisis is arguably felt most keenly by students, the upcoming generation, and yet it is difficult for us to take action when living more sustainably is so costly. When booking a flight these days, users are often faced with more expensive ‘Greener Choice’ options of flights that emit less CO2. These flights are usually direct, reducing a traveller’s carbon footprint in the absence of a journey with multiple layovers. While welcomed in terms of travel time, these flights are often more expensive, thus eliminating it as a travel option for many student and budget travellers. 

Is it fair to ask students to sacrifice travelling in their youth because the carbon emissions are too high? Should we wait until we’re on a full time salary and have only two weeks’ holiday a year? I would be the last to support these ideas, but there are actions we as students can take to reduce our emissions as a result of travel. Interrailing and backpacking are common student trips. As a bonus, they also have less of a negative impact on the environment. It makes sense to travel Europe via train with cheap interrail tickets, relatively small travel times, and breathtaking views. On the same level, though, the thought of a seven hour bus ride from Rio to São Paulo may be grim, but it is a lot more affordable and ‘green’. 

Destination options can be restricted when travelling with sustainability in mind. A traveller could decide to take the night bus to travel around South America and cut back on flights, but will still need to take at least two flights to get there from Europe and back. It would be a shame to give up the chance to travel to bucket list places, but with cost and moral hindrances, students are increasingly being left with no other option.

It would be a shame to give up the chance to travel to bucket list places, but with cost and moral hindrances, students are increasingly being left with no other option.

It is clear that it’s near impossible to travel without contributing to the climate crisis, but there are actionable steps that could be taken at a higher level. The reduction of travel costs on certain transit types could encourage travellers to choose more sustainable options such as ‘eco-flights’ and rail journeys. Furthermore, investment in exploring renewable energy flight options may initially be costly but would have long term positive effects. If changes had only been made twenty years ago, they would be in use by now, in the same way that changes made today will positively affect the future more than a lack of action ever could. United Airlines have invested in startup company ‘Heart Aerospace’ which is developing an electric aircraft that has the potential to fly customers with zero emissions when powered by renewable electricity. The prototypes are too small to make an impact in the commercial jet industry thus far and the project is only in early stages of development, but it is still a step in the right direction. 

Unfortunately, students cannot make much of an impact on these large-scale developments, though small changes can make a big difference when adopted by enough people. Travelling more sustainably can take form in something as simple as supporting local communities by visiting independent businesses and restaurants. The quality of the product will undoubtedly be better and you can rest easy knowing you’re contributing to the local industry. As an extra plus, these local industries are more likely to be sourcing local products, thus reducing their individual carbon footprint. Next time you’re torn between a large international burger chain and a local tapas bar, remember you’re most definitely going to enjoy the patatas bravas more while also supporting their trade.

Other easily actionable steps you can take to reduce your waste when travelling are to take your litter with you and dispose of it properly, and reduce your use of plastic and single-use goods. From camping in Wicklow to exploring New York City, leave no trace behind. If you are travelling to a country where the tap water is drinkable, use your own bottle. If you don’t finish your meal, take a container with you to use the leftovers the next day. These unobtrusive actions will not impede your travels, but can have a massive impact both on a local and global scale. 

At the end of the day, while it is not feasible for students to achieve net zero travel, with a conscious effort to choose alternative transport options and reduce waste, it is possible to make small changes that will have a larger, positive impact.